Mike Miazga: Remembering F.W. Webb's John Pope
Acquiring companies is nothing new for Northeast distribution heavyweight F.W. Webb.
President and CEO Jeff Pope says his father and F.W. Webb owner, John Pope, who died in early January at the age of 86 (for more on John Pope, read here), got the ball rolling for the company in a big way and he simply followed suit when he took over. “We have a history book with all the acquisitions he made,” he says. “When we started making acquisitions he often would wince, ‘Why are you buying this guy?’ He would grumble about it, but if you look at the history book he did the same thing.”
Jeff Pope learned plenty from his dad, a universally revered individual in the industry, over the years. Status quo was not in the playbook. “Never stand still,” he says. “We keep growing, taking shots, getting into new markets and businesses just like he did. I learned from him about being humble, do your job, as (New England Patriots coaching great Bill) Belichick would say, and have fun at the same time. He was a hard act to follow as far as this company goes and as a dad he was as generous as generous could be.”
Ernie Coutermarsh, another industry great and F.W. Webb’s senior vice president of industrial business development, was hired by John Pope in 1969. “John Pope was the passionate conscience of our company,” he says. “His respect and love for the legacy of F.W. Webb was contagiously obvious. He cared so much. He populated the company with leadership and people who were passionate, excited about their job and showed it. We were in our own zone. Competitors would say with envy that Webb was a cult. We had to continually do it better if we were to be the strongest link in the supply chain joining manufacturers and customers.”
AD buying group CEO Bill Weisberg says Pope epitomized what it is to be a successful independent. “John Pope was a tremendous leader with incredible drive vision and common sense,” he says. “John’s personal support for the formation of AD’s groundbreaking PVF division in 2005 led to every other division that comprises AD today. All of us at AD are deeply grateful to John.”
AD PHCP President Jeffrey Beall adds, “John Pope was a consummate leader who selflessly gave his time and energy to advance our industry.”
Pope and former Columbia Pipe & Supply CEO Bill Arenberg were instrumental in the merger between the C.L. Watt buying group and AD. Arenberg died in early January last year at the same age of 86. “Greatest generational players,” is how current Columbia Pipe & Supply President Tim Arenberg describes his father and Pope.
“My dad always was looking for a good idea and how to use it,” Jeff Pope says. “We went from the old traditional-style counter and material behind it to flipping it around and putting products in front of the counter. He pioneered distribution centers.”
But F.W. Webb was a late arrival into the showroom business with its Frank Webb Bath Center locations (now called Frank Webb Home). “Dad was trying to protect the plumbing contractor and let him make the profit and sale,” Jeff Pope says. “He had a slogan, ‘Wholesale or no sale,’ at one point.”
John Pope’s impact at F.W. Webb easily can be quantified numerically. Pope, who still came into the office weekly in recent months, took over the company in 1961 when it was doing $5 million in sales. Today, F.W. Webb has surpassed the $1 billion mark in sales and grew revenues 9% in 2017. John Pope was a recent regular visitor to the company’s new 1-million-plus-square-foot distribution center in New Hampshire — the fourth iteration of a DC since he green-lighted the first one in the late 1960s.
“He was OK with the expense of the first three, but the fourth he winced at,” Jeff Pope says. “The last few months he kept going to the new one. He was proud of it. He called it the Big Box.”
Jeff Pope recalls one of the last sentences his dad said to him. “Take care of Frank for me,” he says. “I know what that meant.”
And thanks to John Pope’s vision, drive and passion along with his son’s third-generation leadership and same vision, Frank is stronger than ever as one of our industry’s truly great companies.